As promised, I’m starting a series of posts on Fifty Shades of Grey today. I hope to have something up about once each week, likely on Mondays (if you wish to skip them). No promises, though. I get distracted by air molecules.
Anyway, now for the warnings: The books are extremely sexually explicit and involve BDSM. Because of that, and because they are not exactly well-researched or high-quality literature, I will mention things such as abuse, rape, rape culture, male dominance, sexism, relationship violence, and consensual BDSM. Also, the books began as Twilight fanfic, so I will be mentioning Twilight (which is a major squick for a lot of people just by itself).
Additional warning: Contains spoilers. If you plan to read the books but haven’t yet, don’t read these posts.
Let’s get to it.
As expected for fairly well-written fanfic (which, admittedly, Fifty Shades is), it is in the style of the original. (Just a quick note: There is a big difference between good fanfic and good books; just trust me on this.) The author, E. L. James, is clearly a knowledgeable fan. And there ends what I liked about 50 Shades.
Actually, that’s not strictly true, but I’ll get to that in a future post. (Chill, it’s not what you think. Perverts.)
Let’s just start with the basic premise: Our heroine, Anastasia, gets drafted to do an interview because her roommate is sick and can’t do it. On what planet does this author live? I have never heard of a journalism student asking a student in another department to do his or her work. If one is scheduled to interview someone and is then unable, wouldn’t it make more sense to ask a fellow student in your department to go? Common sense here, folks. Of course, this is sort of a fantasy, so I guess the rules don’t apply. At any rate, my annoyance with this book starts on page one.
Leaving that aside, let’s take a look at our main character. Why is it that we are supposed to feel sympathy towards female characters who hate themselves? It’s one thing to read a story about a sort of everywoman (see early episodes of 30 Rock). We can relate to her. But while that kind of woman may have awkward situations or be a little socially goofy, she isn’t necessarily without confidence. Anastasia Steele has no idea who she is as a human being. She thinks the worst of herself, and seems to be jealous of everyone around her. It’s maddening. Not only that, we are seeing things from her perspective—it’s in first person—so we know exactly what’s going on inside her head. Sorry, this doesn’t make her relatable, it makes her annoying.
When Ana gets to the interview, she falls smack on her face in front of the interviewee. This is another example of the way women are portrayed as submissive to men in fiction (and I’m not even talking about the dom/sub roles or lifestyle here). I mean, she just looks stupid in front of the Big, Important Main Male Character. Again, this is probably supposed to endear us to her (and it certainly does for the man she interviews, which is more than a little creepy). Instead, it frustrates me that it’s another way in which women are often shown as being less powerful than men. For most feminists, this is obvious. If it doesn’t make sense to you, I will try to explain using small words.
There are still so many ways in which men have privilege, including that women may not receive promotions or not advance their careers as quickly; that women are still paid less than men for the same jobs and there is no law against it; that women have never held political positions such as President or Vice President of the United States; and that women are more likely to face sexual harassment on the job. Showing a woman as weak in front of a powerful man is a way of demeaning her.
Did you catch all that?
Not only that, this is a man who seems to employ only women who look and act a certain way. Yet no one seems bothered by this fact. Ana is more upset that she isn’t as pretty and perfect as the employees than she is that they may actually be cyborgs or clones. (Which, incidentally, would probably have made a better story.) It’s possible that this is what the author was going for, showing the contrast between how Ana feels about it and how we, the readers, feel about it. But I doubt that, since nothing else in this book seems to be philosophically deep.
I’m going to stop there. I could go on awhile, but I’ll save it for next time. Join me for the next installment when I discuss the WTF? interview Ana has with Christian Grey.